Upon the Anniversary of a Mental Breakdown
Written on the 1st & Not Posted Until the 2nd Because Reasons
Preface: Most of this was written a bit over a year ago on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, the first anniversary of “the thing that happened to me.” “They” say you should never write about a life event until you have 10 years’ distance, and I get it now: I’ve attempted to polish this, but like the events it describes, it’s unruly. Perhaps that’s fitting. At any rate, I don’t have 10 years to wait — I’ve found I can’t seem to say anything on paper (or pixels, as it were) until I say this first. So, I’m giving in and letting it be. It’s rough, orders of magnitude too long, and the first thing I’ve let anyone read in the nearly five years since my brain began unraveling, almost for good. I’m just a boy, standing in front of an internet, asking it to love him or whatever, so, you know, be nice.
Also, a quick note: if you’re one of the lucky few who were tasked with, like, saving my life or whatever two years ago, this might be a tough one.
And so it’s been a year.
Saint Patrick’s Day 2014, I was sitting in a Panera Bread in Midtown Manhattan, scraping at my wrist with my fingernails, gleefully anticipating the blood I might draw from them if I kept going. Or maybe later when I got home, as I’d just remembered I had a box cutter in my desk.
So, okay: gotta remember to pick up the laundry I’d forgotten at the laundromat the night before, buy apples to take for work snacks, and then after that I can grab that boxcutter and ram it into my arm and see what happens. Wouldn’t it be wild if I actually felt better? I can see the blood spilling down my translucent-white arm, dripping onto the hardwood. I want to watch it pool, and creep across the floor. These things I want to witness, these things are my bucket list: hike the Grand Canyon; go back to London; watch my blood run out of my arm and trickle toward the door. Would I die? Or would I just feel relieved, like air letting out of a balloon?
If I did die, would Katie find me? Or would she give me my space, as she so respectfully had since my spiral had turned downward, and nobody would ever know until there was enough blood to seep into the living room? Would the dog know? Dogs just like know things, would she know? Would she start yapping at my door for no reason and Katie would exasperatedly shout “WHAT Ella!” in that way she does and get up off the couch and see the blood crossing the threshold? What would her first instinct be? Shove the door open? Run? Call the cops? Bang on the door of the twits downstairs for help? If she did open the door, what would she see? Would she remember it later? Would she be traumatized? Or would she sort of smile like Ben Affleck at the end of “Good Will Hunting,” sad that I’m gone but happy that I’m free?
All day long, St Patrick’s Day 2014, I’d felt like the flicker at the end of a fuse. Crackling and flailing and hot as hell, unable to be still. Like there were millions of bees inside my head (yes, I’m aware I’m mixing my metaphors) and not only could I feel them crawling around the inside of my skull and feel their wings flapping against my brains but I could hear them — all fucking 10 million of them — buzzing in unison. Deafening buzzing and humming and vibration and crackle, so loud I no longer remembered what regular sound sounded like. I’d grabbed my head and pulled two fistfuls of hair trying to stop it, or maybe trying to rip my head open and let them fly out, anything to shut them the fuck up, but I knew I’d look insane if Marilena turned around and saw me, so I let go of my hair and pretended to adjust my headphones just in case Sebastian happened to look over, dug my fingernails into my thighs and tried to breathe.
I tried to get back to work, but my eyes darted everywhere but the computer screen. These fucking bees, man. Their buzzing was turning to electrode shocks to my brain, lightning through the space we see when we close our eyes — oh shit, can’t close my eyes because I keep seeing that splice of Satan’s face from “The Exorcist” trailer, what the fuck, why? I can’t be still, I can’t take this, shut the fuck up, Jesus Christ, stop, stop, stop, shhh, until I felt an instinct to scrape my face off starting with my eyes. Anything to distract. Anything to quiet.
I shook my head and breathed. An email arrived. I opened it. I read three words. I read them over again. Again. Again. I can’t make sense of them. It’s like I’ve forgotten English except I’m thinking about forgetting English in English. Read them again fuck again fuck again. And suddenly.
Suddenly I had a hard-on.
And I mean a HARD-ON. The strongest, most insistent hard-on I’d ever had, before or since, so hard and insistent I felt certain everyone in the room could see it, as if I didn’t even have pants on. It felt like there was an 18-inch dildo jutting from my jeans. I looked down and saw the same innocuous dick I’ve always had, but for whatever reason — for NO reason — rock hard. You’re probably grossed out. Or laughing. I would be. But the point is, there was nothing remotely pleasant about this boner. It did not feel good. It felt like I was bleeding out through my dick, and any minute everything would go black. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I started to shake.
And then, a revelation: I was the most potent, virile, sexual being that had ever existed. I’d just never harnessed this kind of power before. If anyone knew what was happening in my pants right now they would be begging — on their knees pleading — for me to fuck them. Holy fuck, why had I never noticed this before?! I moved my thigh and my cock scraped in my underwear and I almost passed out.
And then I came to. (So to speak.) This made no sense. This was not normal behavior. It was not normal for one’s brain to be melting from the inside out one moment, for one’s skull to be a beehive, to be panicking that one’s cock was bleeding one dry, and desperate to fuck the next. This was not normal. Everything was not normal. I was not normal. Something was wrong. Something with me was wrong.
I tried to breathe into my hard-on, the way they teach you in yoga — breathe into the stretch, breathe into the muscle, breathe into the cock trying to kill you. Namaste. Nothing happened. Nothing budged. I felt like I could actually feel the blood draining out of every vessel, I could feel the blackout coming, and I wanted to scream. So I bolted from my chair and ran to the bathroom and jerked as hard and as fast as I could in a cold existential panic. I need my blood back or I’m going to die. I need to come so my cum can drag these fucking bees out behind it or I’m going to die.
I came, and like a light-switch, it all stopped. The blood, the bees, the electrodes, the flickering fuse. There was nothing but me and the room. Silent. So silent, so opposite, so uncanny that it felt sinister, murderous, and I thought I might be in danger of dying again if I stayed so I zipped up, ran to my desk, grabbed my wallet and bolted. “I need coffee” I said to no one and everyone in the room.
Through the doors to the scream of Sixth Avenue. What the fuck is happening to me. What the fuck is happening to me. What the fuck is happening to me. Shut up. Don’t worry about it. You’re fine. You haven’t had sex since you got high and barebacked that stranger on the Fourth of July and then woke up the next morning in a cold panic. Remember that? That was nine months ago. You just needed to clear out. You’re fine. Drink your coffee. Eat your macaroon. Get another macaroon. Eat that one too. No, don’t get a third one. Ok get a third one. Walk. Breathe. Look at Bryant Park. Glare at the St. Patrick’s Day assholes. Imagine you’re knocking them down, everyone on the sidewalk falling like tree trunks.
Now go back to work.
The rest of the day, moments of panic surfacing every 14 seconds. My mother’s face flashing in my brain like “The Exorcist” Satan’s had earlier. Smiling at me as a kid. Crying at me as a teen. Glaring at me as an adult. Flash. Flash. Flash.
“You’re right, because Christ has changed me.”
“You don’t know me anymore.”
Proud of it. She’s proud of it.
“Because Christ has changed me. You don’t know me anymore.”
Proud that her child doesn’t recognize her.
Proud that her child doesn’t trust her.
“You don’t know me anymore.”
Proud. Proud that she told her child she’d only speak to him if he agreed to become someone else. Proud of an ultimatum. Proud of no x unless y, where x=mother and y=lying. Forever.
The only person who had known me since moment one. The closest thing to a keeper of their history a person has, as Joan Didion once put it. The only person I had while growing up, the only one who seemed to care at all, even if she sometimes couldn’t stop herself from yelling “Get away from me!”, from throwing the remote control at me when the duty of existing overwhelmed her. There were still the nights on the couch, one hand holding “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” the other gently playing with my hair as she read. There were still the days when she’d snap out of her sadness and suddenly we’d be on a trip to the park — the one with the best slide, down the street from the Dairy Mat where we’d go for swirl cones. There were the moments when she’d dance with me to the stack of records she’d clean the house to — Donna Summer or Sheena Easton or Madonna or Fleetwood Mac or The Eagles. When your dad doesn’t bother because your stepmother resents you and the cool teenage kid in the neighborhood who’s your only friend won’t be your friend unless you touch his dick and let him touch yours and you’re the fat, poor, faggy kid at school, even unpredictable, scary love is better than nothing. Love that manipulates you into believing you’re nothing so you won’t leave its side just feels like love when it’s the only love you got. People will eat a goddamn cockroach if they’re hungry enough.
“You don’t know me anymore.”
The beautiful woman aglow with laughter as the candles her jokester friend Denny put in my fourth-birthday Showbiz Pizza fell over and got wax on the cheese. Her face alight as she tried to hold up the candles long enough for the birthday song, squealing “Blow em out, kiddo, quick!,” all of us laughing so hard we could barely breathe.
“You’re right. You don’t know me anymore.”
The avenger who, in response to the bully bleeding in our driveway after wiping out while chasing me home on his bike, flicked two errant pieces of gravel back to their rightful place near his face and sighed, “Yep, war is hell,” before taking my hand and about-facing back up the driveway, band-aids and benevolence be damned.
“Christ has changed me. You don’t know me anymore.”
The comforter who, when I called from college incoherent and sobbing and hyperventilating because I couldn’t find my cafeteria ID, cheerily said against the frightened tears in her throat, “Maybe you should come home this weekend, and we’ll go to the ice sculpture festival in Plymouth. How about that?” Who bought me hot cocoa and said, “I’m glad we finally did this” like it was the best moment of her life.
“You say you feel like you don’t even know me anymore: You’re right, because Christ has changed me. You don’t know me anymore.”
I leave work. Hit the street. Ravenous. More ravenous than I’ve ever been, especially in the fat-kid-who-eats-his-feelings sense. I need food and a lot of it, until my stomach hurts. I need it or I will die.
A Panera. In line, shaking. My lungs inflating in increments, consecutive gasps. Stuttering as I order, inhaling between words, the cashier looking at me weird, the kind of what-the-fuck look teens give to a teacher’s ugly shoes. That look — that fucking look, who cares, she’s 16! — cutting through my sternum.
Enough food for two of me, sprawled on a little table, in a crowded dining room. My craft-bound Moleskine open and my blue clicky pen moving a million words per minute.
“I fucking hate her.” I wrote it, and then scribbled it out. And scribbled it out. And scribbled it out. Harder. Harder. Faster. Faster. Furiously, until I wore through the page, and then the page underneath, and the one underneath, until flecks of paper curled up under the point of the pen like wood shavings from a lathe. I gouged it with enough strength that people started glancing in my direction, wondering what the hell I was doing.
So I stopped. Put my hands in my lap. My wrist itched, but not really… almost like it itched inside, like the bone itched, like the idea of an itch, or something. I scratched with my fingernails, and the scratches turned to scrapes, and the scrapes turned to little coconut flakes of skin that lodged under my fingernails. And now we’ve arrived where we started.
And then, a brief moment of lucidity. I realize what I’m doing. And that what I’m doing is crazy. And that the fact that I realize what I’m doing is crazy while I’m still doing it and still wanting to do it — the inside of that wrist still itching and aching to be sliced to ribbons by those fingernails — is even crazier. And people are looking. And I need to leave immediately. And I have to pee so bad. So, pack up, pee, and then get the fuck out of here before someone calls the police. I rush the packing, almost knock the table over — more looks — and bolt for the men’s room.
On the way in, my reflection in the mirror. Eyes wide, bulging, red, dilated, darting, lashes flapping, chewing on my lower lip, skin covered in ash, or newspaper ink, black dust settled into my pores, I’ve aged a decade in a year, the face of an animal or a ghoul but not a man, a ghoul staring at me with its eyes widening into jet-black pools that look through me and know me and are going to kill me and I jump and gasp and get the fuck away from that mirror.
Hands shaking, undoing my fly, pulling out my dick, instantly hard. Rock hard. And I start sobbing because for fuck’s sake I can’t even piss right.
What is happening? What the fuck is this? Am I dying? Am I dead? I’m sobbing so hard I can’t see and I might be dead and I can’t get a breath and I feel the piss coming and I hope to almighty Christ my dick is over the urinal and not the floor please God I can’t see let my dick be in the urinal and not over the floor please please please I can’t walk out of here with piss on my pants please please please you’ve done enough I have enough please not this too and I hear the piss hit the porcelain and I’m so relieved I start crying even harder.
I fly out of the Panera so fast I bump into people. 5th Ave. I head to the subway. I have to go home and cut my arm open. I have to. I can’t breathe and I know if I cut my arm open my lungs will open with it. I have to. But I know I shouldn’t. I know that is called a thing and that thing is “suicide attempt” and that suicide attempts are things a person is not supposed to do. What if the blood seeps under the door and Ella doesn’t know any better and she starts lapping it up and Katie walks in and has to live the rest of her life remembering her dog licking my blood off the floor?
No, no, no. I shouldn’t do that. That wouldn’t be cool. No.
And then: Holy fuck. I’m insane.
In this moment I know this more than I know anything. I’ve gone insane. I’ve split into two people: one who’s insane, and one who knows he’s insane — nope, wait, there’s a third, too, one who knows he’s insane and is still insane nonetheless. And they’re arguing in my head.
Cut it. Go home and cut it.
NO. No, no, no. Don’t be the incompetent, unhinged dolt your mother has told you you are since you were able to understand words. Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you get to be fucking stupid.
But guys, seriously? Quick word: are you listening to yourselves? This shit is bonkers. I’m 100% on board with the not cutting thing, that’s some bullshit. BUT: this is irreparable, and the subway is right there, and you’ve been thinking long and hard about this for years. And look, you did your best, but you will NOT bounce back from this. It’s not YOUR fault humans aren’t made that strong. It’s ok. You’re crazy. Own it girl! Throw in the towel. The subway’s coming. Hear that? If you go now you’ll make it to the platform just in time to jump. Go. GO. GO ON.
No. Call Lynda. She gets this shit. Call her, ask her to just come walk with you until you calm down. Seriously. Take a knee, kid.
No cut it. Go home and cut it and smear the blood on your face and eat it off your fingers.
NO. Call Lynda.
I mean, sure, call Lynda. So she can call 911 and get you handcuffed to a gurney in a psych ward, how’s THAT for a cherished memory? Just saying. The subway is right there.
No. Walk. Walk as fast as you can away from here and don’t stop until you’re sure. Absolutely, resolutely, soul-level sure. And if you can’t feel sure, then you lose and you have to go home and go to bed. That’s the deal.
I power-walk through Midtown Manhattan, talking to myself, crying, bumping into people, swearing at them, calling one of them a cunt, walking, walking, walking, to the river, to the Hudson, until fatigue sets in, and that stops the crying, and my legs start to hurt, and that clears the fog, and though I want nothing more than I want to be black, invisible, motionless and quiet, I am not sure — not absolutely, resolutely, soul-level sure — that that is the same thing as dead.
So I go home. Write my mother a suicide note that I never send. Crumple into bed. Sob until I go unconscious. Wake up, have breakfast with Katie and Ella, and go back to work like nothing happened.
This didn’t come out of nowhere. I’d been crumbling for almost two years, the time it took for my mother to complete the process of cutting me from her life, and for my stepmother to out me to my father, whom I’d only just gotten back on good terms with after many years of silence (and my relationship with whom has never recovered). Along the way I’d sunken into the kinds of depressions that inspired friends to take turns paying my phone bill so I couldn’t disappear, and near strangers like my roommate’s houseguest to knock on my bedroom door bearing a risotto she’d made and say in her thick Italian accent, “I know this, I have done this, maybe these helps.”
And there had been a six-month stint of mania too, so glittering and exhilarating I sometimes can’t help but look back on it wistfully — the preposterous optimism, the delusions of grandeur, the invincibility, the insomnia, the weight loss, the drug use, the experimental and sometimes dangerous sex, the random and impulsive semester of film school that has ruined me financially for at least the foreseeable future. It was like living inside of a firework at its moment of explosion, everyone I know cheering on the grass below, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t sometimes hope it happens again, even if the crash that inevitably follows is likely to be fatal.
Just that sort of crash had happened the week of this St. Patrick’s Day incident. The final blow that split my brain in half came in the silliest of forms: a Facebook disagreement the nature of which I couldn’t recall if you put a gun to my head (poor phrasing maybe, sorry). I called my best friend in Chicago sobbing and hyperventilating, and told her I was sorry but I couldn’t do this anymore, that she’d done enough and would be better off and that once the dust settles she’ll be relieved. She practically screamed into the phone.
“This is the part where your parents are supposed to fly to New York and pack up your stuff and take you home, but they’re shitty people and they’re not gonna do it so you need to let me.”
Not long after, she coordinated a rescue mission with another friend, who drove her mother’s car from Detroit to Queens and took me to Chicago. It’s been a bit under a year since that escape, and my brain, in a rare act of consideration, has kept the details opaque until now for my own protection, according to my therapist. I’ve moved through these months like Prince Prospero’s clock was ticking in the next room, up against the deadline when the typical prognosis for bipolar disorder that’s been raging unacknowledged and undiagnosed and untreated for 25 years, finally comes to take over and my brain throws in the towel. What if my mother turns up out of nowhere and twists the knife? What if I let someone in and they break me? Or what if it’s not even that complicated? What if, one day, for whatever reason — a memory triggered, the wine at dinner shifting my neurochemical paradigm, the fucking barometric pressure, who knows — I’m suddenly out of my mind again? What if there’s not actually any structure to this at all? And so, I’ve been running, away from my former life and toward something big and sparkly enough to mean that the entire arc of my history can be rewritten, or at least that we may never speak of this again.
Right after arriving in Chicago, I realized I’d lost everything that ever mattered to me — family, career, money, goals, the mere ability to dream, let alone dreams themselves. Everything but writing and friends. It was strangely comforting: the simplicity, an entire life just ink in a journal and friends cracking wise. And if you’re looking for the very-special-episode-of-Oprah part of this thing, here it is: there was also another element to this simplicity: the fact of survival.
It’s been explained to me by my therapist that most people like me don’t make it. I’ve been given the statistics. I’ve read the stories about people of privilege and resources beyond my own by orders of magnitude who were nonetheless unable to survive this lot in the mental health lottery. And when it comes to the inexcusable state of the American mental health system, I’ve lived that first-person, firsthand. Somehow, I’m here. I’m not willing or qualified to wax philosophical about how or why — it would be a tacky and maudlin and self-serving addition to a diatribe that is probably already rife with those things. But ducking and dodging feel just as unsavory. Call it survivor’s guilt, call it melodramatic navel-gazing, call it whatever you wish. I just know I can’t do it anymore. I’m here, I’m queer and a series of shards held together with duct tape, get used to it.
So. One year down. Some 50 or so to go. No more running. My knees are shit anyway.
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